Food trucks face familiar roadblocks in City Hall

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Amid pointed accusations that an ordinance green-lighting food trucks was being railroaded through City Hall, Alexandria’s top elected officials quickly moved to tap the brakes this week.

The ordinance, crafted after months of study by a food truck task force, would let the popular eateries operate in much of the city. In three of Alexandria’s best-known neighborhoods — Carlyle, Del Ray and Old Town — food trucks faced stricter restrictions.

Even so, the proposal swiftly became a target of intense criticism, with many restaurateurs among the detractors. In Old Town, for example, owners of brick-and-mortar establishments worry food trucks would enjoy an unfair advantage. Unlike businesses and property owners, the mobile eateries would remain free of many of the old and historic district’s more onerous regulations.

Several members of the task force charged with fleshing out food truck regulations joined the critics’ ranks, accusing city staff of crafting an ordinance before the group had a chance to finish its work. They also charged officials with glossing over dissent within the task force on more controversial issues.

Responding to the mounting opposition, which grew to include members of the planning commission in recent weeks, Mayor Bill Euille critiqued the proposal during Tuesday evening’s city council meeting as premature.

“I’m personally not for it,” he said, “because it’s not ready.”

His words echoed the stance of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, which released its position on the proposal earlier in the week. Though supportive of food trucks, the organization called for a delay.

Until a business impact study — focusing on the effect food trucks will have on brick-and-mortar restaurants — is completed and the task force’s recommendations finalized, food trucks should be deferred, the group argued. Though not banned outright in the Port City, existing regulations leave four-wheeled restaurateurs with few opportunities to feed hungry patrons in Alexandria.

“Without any analysis of the potential impact on Alexandria’s existing restaurants, many of whom are part of the very fabric of city life, [city] council is taking a leap of faith that the impact on existing brick-and-mortar restaurants will be negligible,” wrote chamber officials.

While the push to delay received praise from Val Hawkins, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, a spokesman for the DMV Food Truck Association — a chamber member — said their group was against deferral. The split between the chamber and food truck association highlights the growing division within the community over the proposal.

That divide was on display when the city’s planning commission weighed the suggested regulations earlier this month. Commissioner Nathan Macek saw food trucks as a way to enliven areas of the city while his colleague, Eric Wagner, viewed them as a threat to residents’ quality of life and the proposal as having flouted the city’s planning process.

“I think that they have an impact on enlivening public space that we could take advantage of here,” Macek said. “They provide an option. It’s healthy competition, but it helps to bring a new option to diners. And think about the area right around City Hall. What is there in the way for food for people who work in City Hall?”

“I am at a loss as to how we take something that we have protected so much, that is our Old Town — our old and historic district — and saying you can’t put a McDonald’s in here unless it looks like this, but by God you can drive one up in a van,” Wagner said a few minutes later, before urging residents to register their opposition to the proposal with city councilors.

The growing controversy was not lost on Alexandria’s top elected officials, many of whom joined Euille in expressing misgivings. Though they voted unanimously to send the full ordinance ahead to Saturday’s public hearing, the decision came with a caveat: The contentious aspects — namely curbside vending throughout the city — would be stripped out.

Noncontroversial aspects, like letting food trucks operate at farmer’s markets, special events and at private functions would be bundled together as a separate proposal. City councilors indicated they would simultaneously direct the task force to complete its work on the disputed areas of the proposal, with those issues to be taken up at a later date.

“We’ve already spent a substantial amount of time on this and we’ve got to have a path to closing this out,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson, who argued for giving the task force a deadline to finish deliberating. “If we’re not going to do it, let’s just stop it and be done with it.”

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